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O’LEARY: Hoosier Pit Pass

STANFORD, Ind. — Like it or not, USAC’s Silver Crown division is again balancing precariously. With the opening race looming, there are many questions to be answered as controversial changes have been levied on the competitors.

Switching to a bio-based (ethanol) fuel, USAC may be risking another big step backward in a series that is still rebounding from the previous experiment.

Several seasons ago, USAC tried a radical new chassis design for the pavement champ cars, affecting nearly half the schedule. But the new car gained little traction and the series went back to the older configuration after just a couple of years.

It was a significant setback for the series as they lost several teams that simply sold their equipment and didn’t come back, and popular drivers who didn’t have rides. And like the knee bone is connected to the leg bone, fewer cars in the pits are connected to fewer butts in the stands, which affects the health of the division.

After months of testing, USAC made a big commitment to ethanol racing fuels, forming a partnership with National Biofuels Distribution, naming their Ignite the group’s official racing fuel in 2011, and mandating the use of 114 Red in the Silver Crown cars beginning this year.

While National Biofuels predicts use of 2 to 3 million gallons of the ethanol, USAC cites fuel savings of at least 40 percent, as well as clean burning and safety aspects. A press release by National Biofuels also states that all USAC series will be required to use ethanol in 2013.

At the sprint car opening weekend, in February, USAC’s Jason McCord acknowledged that there was concern.

“It’s not been the most popular decision right now, and unfortunately in the short term I think that it is going to cost us a few cars. I hate to say that, but I’m trying to be realistic,” McCord said. “I’m not saying guys will never run again, but I know a few of them have cars that just run the dirt miles, and there might be one or two that have a wait and see approach. See how it works and maybe learn from somebody else’s mistakes, or something like that.”

“We’re definitely trying to help those teams cut costs and get discounts for the conversion parts, and supplying the fuel next year, anything we can do,” McCord pointed out. USAC has arranged for a free 55-gallon drum of Ignite to help teams get started, as well as an arrangement with Kinsler Fuel Injection for discounts on the new nozzles.

There have been mixed reports during the winter. McCord says that USAC’s R&D and dyno testing indicated that the change could be as easy as changing the nozzles, jet setting and possibly the fuel pump. Then he adds that it really depends who you ask.

“Some guys will tell you that you won’t get optimum performance out of the engine doing that, but again, that’s kind of a wait and see approach,” McCord said. “In the past, many times I’ve had an engine do one thing on the dyno and as soon as you put it in the race car it does something totally different.”

Daryl Guiducci’s Six-R team conducted several testing sessions with driver Kody Swanson, who explained, “We’re just taking the opportunity to make sure we get everything figured out that we need to. There were concerns about how the ethanol will work as far as keeping the motor cool. So we want to make sure that we’re as prepared as we can be.”

To say that the Silver Crown series is special to most open wheel racing fans is an understatement. It is the last remaining piece of the National Championship, the country’s premier racing series for much of a century.

Under the cognizance of AAA for most of its history, the National Championship was reorganized by USAC after AAA departed the racing business following the 1955 season.

By 1971, the pavement portion of the National Championship had evolved to mostly rear-engined cars. Bowing to a variety of pressures, USAC broke the upright cars, with their front engines and dirt ovals, into a separate division that became known as the Silver Crown series. Pavement tracks were added back in years later, and while the series frequently flourished, at other times it struggled.

“It was starting to grow a little bit,” McCord admitted, “but it’s a tough thing because it’s the only Silver Crown division in the world. It’s not like the sprint cars, where you might get a big influx of Silver Crown cars that are just going to show up one night. So, we’ve got to try to take care of those guys the best we can. I know with a lot of them it’s not a real popular decision, but we have to work through it and make the best of it that we can and see if we can’t keep the thing growing.”

USAC’s challenge might be that traditionally, their fans are not interested in fuel savings or environmental initiatives when they go to the race track.

These modern initiatives are fine once they walk out the gates and head home, but when they pay their money and climb the steps of the grandstand, they want to see the best cars and drivers. They want to experience the smoke, the smells, the roar, power and close competition that they have known for decades, and it isn’t known what affect theses changes will have. History has proven that when the racing doesn’t provide what these fans are looking for, many find other things to do.

The impact will be more apparent when the new season gets started on May 19, at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, followed a week later by the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairground dirt mile. The champ cars will run nine races in 2012.

Swanson tends to avoid the politics when discussing the coming season, noting, “I think that the people that run up front, run up front because they figure it out. Whatever they needed to figure out they did that. This will just be another variable here at the beginning of the year that those people will get figured out and get their motors running how they need to. You never know, there could be some wild cards that sneak in there. I think that the bulk of the series, the competitiveness is still going to be there and I’m looking forward to seeing how we stack up.”

With only nine races on the schedule and an average of 26 cars at last year’s events, USAC may not be able to afford a mulligan. Still, McCord is looking forward optimistically.

“I know for the most part, the majority are getting things ready and full steam ahead for the whole series,” he says. “We definitely want it to be a good thing and not something that is going to be looked back and think, well, that was a bad move. We don’t want to jeopardize or hurt the series. It will hurt a little bit short term, but long term it will probably be OK.”

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Posted by on Mar 18 2012 Filed under Columns, Opinion. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

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